LearnLab Explores Teaching and Learning

Classroom technology used for education and research.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

The questions have consumed educational researchers for years: how do children learn, and what are the best ways to teach them? Should the emphasis be on practicing basic skills, or on encouraging deep understanding and conceptual thinking, or both? 

“Considering there are many different kinds of knowledge we want our children to acquire, what are the best ways to get them there?” says Kenneth R. Koedinger, professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.  “We are looking to develop concepts about what is the right way to teach and to learn.”

Scientists at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and its research facility, LearnLab, are seeking these answers through a series of studies using classrooms in more than 50 schools and colleges in the Pittsburgh area and around the country.   

LearnLab addresses a longtime dilemma for educational researchers, the dichotomy between experiments conducted in the artificial setting of a laboratory, which can produce results not always transferrable to schools, and those conducted in classrooms, which tend to be less rigorously controlled.

LearnLab’s use of advanced technologies enables the researchers to design experiments that combine the realism of classroom field studies with the rigor of those that take place in the lab. They are studying teaching and learning in math (algebra, geometry), science (physics, chemistry) and language (Chinese and English as a second language) courses, using computer programs as a major component of instructional programs.  

“In our modern technology world, it’s easier to take our insights and bring them into practice,” says Koedinger, director of the center. For example, “we built a computer based algebra course that 600,000 students now use as part of their algebra class. Those kinds of educational technologies are a platform for doing research in real settings and real course to make it better for kids.”

With such technology, “we can get at the details of what works and what doesn’t,” he adds. “The technologies enable us to get more data to figure out what works. As soon as we figure it out, it’s part of the course. So we are using technology in the classroom both as a teaching tool and a research tool.”

The center, established in 2004, is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science of Learning Center, funded by NSF with $5 million annually. LearnLab draws upon the two Pittsburgh universities’ expertise in cognitive and developmental psychology, human-computer interaction and intelligent tutoring systems, matching learning and language technologies. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, for example, designed Cognitive Tutor®, the computer-based tutoring program Koedinger describes above, that includes a comprehensive secondary mathematics curriculum now in use in 1,700 schools nationwide.

The researchers already have reached some intriguing conclusions.

Every student, for example, knows that homework is a fact of life, albeit one whose value has been the subject of endless debate. LearnLab researchers have discovered ways to make that nightly task more effective.

In math, for example, traditionally, students receive a list of math problems to solve. But this approach “gives novice learners too little support in constructing new knowledge,” Koedinger says. “It’s not as effective as replacing about half of those problems with example solutions. Rather than guessing their way through problems, these worked-out examples allow students to focus on grasping the thinking needed so they can solve future problems on their own.”

Thus, “if every other problem contains a step-by-step solution, students learn more robust skills,” he adds. “Even better is adaptive computer-based practice that adjusts to individual students, providing more worked-out solution steps initially, but then gradually challenging a student with more problems as he or she increases in understanding and skill.”